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How Paternal Authority Has Changed Over the Years

How Paternal Authority Has ChangedGrowing up, if I left a light on in an unoccupied room, my dad would snap, “Stop wasting my electricity.”

Whenever there was an issue with something in the house, whether it be caused by carelessness or defiance — a spill on the sofa, a slam of the door, a stain on the rug — my dad claimed ownership of the object defiled. It was his couch cushions the glass of milk upended on; his carpet that our sneakers muddied. Even as a teenager, when I had the ridiculous idea of writing a poem on the door of my room in black marker, the offense was personal. That was his door, not mine. The room, and the door with it, was on loan to me till I was eighteen, after which I’d have to pay rent.

(That poem turned out to be a bigger problem than I had ever imagined. My dad spray painted over it, and then had me repaint the door again and again, but the words kept rising through the white, like the bloodstains on Lady MacBeth’s hands, ghosts not easily exorcised. Turns out I had inadvertently used a permanent marker.)

Because our language is shaped by our environment at a young age, I sometimes find myself snapping back into this old formulation with my son. “Don’t you slam that screen door,” I’ll say. “You take care of my stuff.”

“It’s not your stuff, it’s our stuff,” he told me. Then he looked at his mother. “Daddy doesn’t have stuff.”

This is, I hate to admit it, true. I might claim ownership to some beloved books, ones that I accumulated years ago in high school and college, and I’d certainly say that my clothes are my clothes. But besides that? I don’t have a lot of stuff. The furniture, the house, the utilities: these things belong to the family.

Even if I wanted to lay claim to them, I couldn’t with any logic. I’m not the breadwinner. If anyone could say she owned these things, it would be my wife, who technically pays for it all, including the internet and my phone and even the computer I’m using now.

But she’d never lay claim to these things personally, and neither would I. This isn’t a condemnation of my dad’s way of thinking, rather, an example of how our ideas about the family have changed. The paradigm of a father in particular is in flux, from the person who was like a feudal king — he provided financially and so you owed him fealty, because whatever bestowed could be taken away in punishment; he was the ultimate authority — to a council member at the roundtable, one voice of many in the collaborative decision making unit of the family.

In this view, the child may not have an equal vote to the parents, but there is some level of autonomy and agency. My four-year-old son is encouraged to provide an opinion, as long as he does it respectfully, and my wife and I listen to him, and respond, and even let him make decisions, within reason. For example, when he selected a ball of mozzarella cheese at the grocery store and told my wife that he’d like to make pizza this week, she said, “sure, that’s a great idea,” and not, “I decided what we’re going to eat this week, and pizza’s not on the list — put that back.”

This isn’t to imply that we don’t have parental power or authority, or that we’re raising a child who sees himself as equal to adults. When he grabs a box of sugar-packed cereal that we don’t approve of, we tell him to put it back, we won’t buy it. Just like when he talks back in a rude manner, or when he mimics our language to chastise us (“how many times do I have to tell you, Daddy?”), we reprimand him — “kids don’t talk to adults like that.” But our authority is different, and certainly, in many respects, less consolidated than the authority that my parents — and my dad in particular, because the ultimate power is traditionally patriarchal — wielded.

Believe me, I’ve been writing online enough to know that not everyone feels a family should operate in this way. I’ve been told there’s a problem with our family’s basic set-up, with my wife working and me at home, just like I’ve been advised to be a distant, stern, law-providing authority figure, kind of like The Godfather. But that’s just not me. I respect and am interested in hearing my wife’s opinion, and my son’s too — I have no desire to wield absolute power single-handedly, just as I have never had any dreams of one day becoming President of the United States. Who needs the stress?

In college I was an active member in the student cooperative movement, and as a professional I enjoyed collaborative projects. Even when teaching, I loved when students surprised me with their responses, or took an activity in a direction I didn’t anticipate. This kind of back-and-forth, give-and-take — this dance of power — is more exciting to me than a rigid, top-down pyramid.

And it will, I hope, in relation to our family dynamic, produce a child with a strong civic minded spirit and compassionate attitude. One who doesn’t see his stuff, but our stuff, and who doesn’t look to shift blame onto the authority figure — I’m just following his rules, not our rules — but who seeks agency within the family and the classroom and whatever social structure he finds himself. In short, a free-thinking individual who doesn’t want to be a passive follower but an active leader.

 

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